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Annotation of Founding Fathers’ Papers a Real Slog

Lawmakers will take a look Thursday at a Congressionally funded effort to conserve the Founding Fathers’ papers for the first time in decades.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing will focus on how to make the hundreds of thousands of letters and official documents more widely available to the public.

“I think that these papers should be accessible to people. We spent almost $30 million and most of it’s not accessible,” Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said, referring to Congressional funding for the project since the 1960s. “I’m hoping to talk about digitizing them and making them available that way.”

The project is actually a public-private partnership: On top of Congress’ contribution, a nonprofit called the Papers of the Founding Fathers garners private donations. Chief among the donators is the Pew Charitable Trust, which has put about $7.5 million into the effort.

Separate teams of scholars around the country have used the funds to organize, transcribe and annotate the correspondence of George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Rebecca Rimel, president of the trust, recently raised concerns about the project’s timeline and accessibility, along with high-profile scholars such as David McCullough.

Congress’ involvement began around 1950, and current estimates put completion as far away as 2050. In the meantime, copies of some of the original documents are unavailable to the general public. Buying some of the published volumes also is out of reach — one volume costs around $200 and each Founding Father will get as many as 90 volumes.

“This issue has been orphaned way too long,” Rimel said. “What could be more important than the words of our Founding Fathers?”

Universities working on the project don’t actually have most of the originals. What they have are organized copies. Some of those copies that have been transcribed by experts and published in book form are available electronically, sometimes for a fee. So far, only Hamilton’s papers are complete, and that’s partly because he didn’t have enough time to produce as much as his peers. He died in a duel at the age of 49.

Some efforts to compile all this information dates back to the 1940s, but it’s a mixed bag. The projects are spread across several universities and institutions, each with its own staff, its own policies and its own pace. Yale takes care of Franklin, the Massachusetts Historical Society handles Adams, Princeton has Jefferson, Columbia has Hamilton and the University of Virginia is responsible for Washington and Madison. All that connects them is a combined funding effort. There is no central oversight, only fundraisers.

Putting the original documents online isn’t a new idea, said Stanley Katz, chairman of the Papers of the Founding Fathers; the idea has been around for more than a decade. Funding is the main issue.

Most recently, he said, an effort to put all the documents online was scratched because the fund couldn’t come up with the roughly $16 million to pull it off.

As for publishing the the papers more quickly, Katz was doubtful.

“These are huge scholarly projects. They’re mostly important in the long run to other scholars,” he said. “I don’t think it can be done substantially more quickly.”

The University of Virginia has been working on the project since the late 1960s, said Edward Lengel, the associate editor for the Papers of George Washington.

Since then, the staff — which now numbers eight, plus a few students — has completed an average of two volumes a year. So far, they’ve published 54 volumes out of 89 on the country’s first president; each contains about 700 pages and is two inches thick.

The process is cumbersome, Lengel said. Researchers are handling 140,000 documents for Washington alone. They first had to collect copies of the originals from all over the United States and, in some cases, abroad. Those copies can be on paper, in electronic form or even on microfilm. A separate file contains the rough transcriptions of some of these documents — all done by graduate students in the 1970s and 1980s.

Putting those transcriptions publicly available and online in their current form would be irresponsible, Lengel said. Paragraphs are missing, words are misspelled, papers are misidentified.

“This is something that a lot of people don’t seem to understand. They think we can just press a button and, voila, these transcriptions can just become available,” Lengel said. “The problem is that these are very poor transcriptions. They have all kinds of problems.”

The challenge, he said, is reproducing a correct copy of the original document and placing it in the right timeline of history. One copy of a letter may be a first draft and not the final sent version, for example. And many are written in handwriting indecipherable to all but experts.

All this will be discussed at Thursday’s hearing, Leahy said. Depending on how the hearing goes, there might be more Congressional involvement in the future, he said.

“There’s so much that could be done on this and we’d all be better off for it,” he said. “We don’t teach enough history as it is in this county.”

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